Efforts to reduce data center costs are usually focused on decreasing power and cooling expenses, but there is another, often overlooked, component of data center costs where significant savings can be realized—the network infrastructure.
Organizations spend billions of dollars building network infrastructures each year. According to the latest data available from Canalys, the worldwide data center infrastructure market reached $26.2 billion in 3Q11, up 2.7 percent from $25.5 billion in 2Q11, with Ethernet networking expenses accounting for 21 percent of the total investment. 
Despite the significant investment in network infrastructures, many organizations are overlooking opportunities to reduce network infrastructure costs by hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars. Below are four money-saving strategies that can help your organization significantly reduce data center network infrastructure costs without sacrificing performance or quality.
Streamline the Supply Chain
For more than 50 years, the traditional structured cabling industry supply chain has followed a multi-tier distribution channel, which inadvertently results in markups in the cost of structured cabling products. The traditional channel starts with a manufacturer who hires a manufacturer's rep firm to sell the manufacturer's products in a designated territory for a commission. The products then make a stop at a distributor, who then sells them to a contractor, who in turn marks the products up before selling them to an end user.
Each stage of the distribution channel adds another layer of expense to cabling products. Products such as Category 5e cables and connectors, which are considered a commodity and are near the end of their product life cycle, may only cost 10 or 15 percent more through distribution, but new products may be marked up as much as 70 percent through distribution.
An alternative to the multi-tier distribution channel is to buy cable directly from the manufacturer. Advancements in e-commerce and shipping have increased the viability of buying cables direct. Despite the availability of direct buy cable, however, many companies continue to spend millions of dollars on cable that is available only through the multi-tier distribution channel. A national health insurance company that spends approximately $25 million on cabling costs each year could shorten its distribution channel, but instead, the company adheres to an internal IT department-designated “standard” that requires a specific brand of cable that is only available through a multi-tier distribution channel. This costs the company an additional $5 million each year.
Building a data center is expensive enough without adding costly change orders to the mix. Reducing change orders and expensive modifications can help you decrease the overall cost of your data center, but it requires proper planning of your network infrastructure before implementation begins. The key to designing a cost-effective network infrastructure for your data center is to bring a Registered Communications Distribution Designer (RCDD) on board early in the design process.
Working directly with an RCDD early in the process is critical for maximizing space utilization, creating proper pathways for infrastructure cabling, addressing security issues, managing installation schedules, and limiting disruptions to business operations. RCDDs are trained to provide the initial planning and design of network infrastructures, as well as to manage the infrastructure installation through completion. By bringing RCDDs into the process early, you will be able to minimize facility operating costs. RCDDs can help you do the following:
- Prepare proper pathways that allocate ample space for the infrastructure system
- Plan adequate bandwidth for future growth
- Minimize downtime of mission-critical technologies and systems during implementation 
Adopt an Open Standards Platform
There is an ongoing debate in the cabling industry regarding end-to-end network infrastructure systems versus open systems. End-to-end systems are composed of technology from a single manufacturer, whereas open systems comprise interoperable components from multiple manufacturers that meet industry standards. Proponents of end-to-end systems believe that optimal performance is achieved by building a system with components from a single manufacturer, whereas proponents of open systems believe that optimal performance is achieved by using the latest and greatest technologies from multiple manufacturers in an interoperable system.
Manufacturers often heavily support end-to-end systems while industry organizations push for interoperability. In fact, the TIA’s Commercial Building Wiring Standard (TIA-568) was established to encourage interoperability by allowing diverse manufacturers the opportunity to build equipment and components that interoperate. It is important to remember that all structured cabling manufactures have to comply with cabling standards from Underwriters Laboratories (UL), Intertek Group (ETL) and National Electrical Code (NEC), as well as the design and engineering standards of the EIA/TIA Commercial Building Wiring Standards. As long as you choose cables that meet industry standards, you are free to choose whichever brand of cable best suits your needs. Consider the features and benefits of cabling products that will best suit your needs. Features that vary by brands include the following:
- Port density
- Wire management
- Labeling systems
- Ease of use
Adopting an open standards platform for your network infrastructure can help you save money in several ways. For instance, creating an open system can increase your bargaining power by allowing you to request quotes from multiple manufacturers to promote competitive bidding. An open standards platform also prevents you from being “spec’d in.” Once a manufacturer knows you will only purchase one brand of cable, they have less of an incentive to offer price breaks or discounts since you are already “spec’d in.”
Investing a little more in advanced technology now can save you money in the future when it comes to structured cabling for your data center network infrastructure. Electronics used in network infrastructures must be upgraded every couple of years, but your cable infrastructure is designed to last 10 years or more. Owing to the long life of cabling and the expense of replacing cabling, it is best to opt for high-performance cables from the outset that can handle the increasing need for speed and high-volume data transfers. High-performance cables also promote energy efficiency and have a long lifespan, which means fewer cables will be abandoned in the future. If left in conduits, abandoned cables can actually increase your costs by blocking airflow, resulting in increased heating and cooling expenses.
Keep in mind that Category 5e cables are fast becoming obsolete as demand for bandwidth continues to increase. In fact, Category 5e cables are no longer recognized as a standard for horizontal cabling according to the TIA-942-A standard.  Typically, the bandwidth of a Category 5e cable is 87 percent utilized with Gigabit Ethernet, which doesn’t leave much room for error. Though Category 5e may be capable of carrying Gigabit Ethernet, these cables limit the future uses of an infrastructure.
Currently, Category 6 and Category 6a cables are the recommended standard, but fiber optic systems show the most potential for providing enough bandwidth and reliability at a low enough cost to meet bandwidth demands for the next decade. Ideally, it is best to install at least one category of cable higher than your current needs to stay ahead of bandwidth demand and future proof your network infrastructure.
About the Author
Bob Eskew, RCDD, is the founder and CEO of Automated Systems Design Inc. (ASD), which provides manufacturing, management and maintenance of nationwide custom turnkey information transport wystems. ASD, a five-time Inc. 500/5000 company, manufactures high-performance iCAT-ITS copper offerings, including Cat5e, Cat6e, and 10-gigabit Cat6a cables, as well as iGLO-ITS fiber optic products. For details, visit www.asd-usa.com.
 Source: Canalys, Worldwide data center infrastructure investment reaches $26.2 billion, December 14, 2011
 Source: BICSI, Why Is an RCDD Critical in the Building Design Process, September 2011
 Cabling Installation and Maintenance, TIA-942-A Telecommunications Infrastructure Standard for Data Centers Approved, April 9, 2012
Photo courtesy of Derrick Coetzee